The Best Things to Do in Kenya

If a child constructed a world of wonders, it may look like Kenya: lions, elephants, sleeping in big beds under starry skies, white-sand beaches, sailing in hot-air balloons, and friendly people everywhere. Come experience the world of wonders.

In what is considered one of the earth’s greatest spectacles, over a million wildebeest make their way from Tanzania’s Serengeti to Kenya in search of lusher grasslands. The great migration is a very good reason to visit the diamond in Kenya’s crown of national parks, the Masai Mara. The most dramatic scenes take place at the river crossings, where the wildebeest slip and crash down the steep embankments of the Mara River into crocodile- and hippo-infested waters and, if they get through that, still have to gallop past the Mara’s high density of lions awaiting them on the other side. The best time to see the migration here is between the months of July and September. Porini Lion Camp is an excellent accommodation choice, with knowledgeable guides and a responsible approach to protecting the delicate Mara ecosystem.
Watamu, Kenya
Nestled between pristine beaches and lush forest, the peaceful town of Watamu is ground zero for water sports in Kenya. One of Kenya’s most renowned kite-surfing schools, Tribe Watersports, is based here and offers three–day courses to get you skimming the warm waves of the Indian Ocean in no time. If you’re happier underwater, Watamu will also appeal. A maze of rich coral reefs skirts the shoreline, so giant turtles and exotic fish can be seen year-round, and at certain times of the year majestic whale sharks pass through this region, making it a snorkeling and diving haven. For accommodation, check out the eccentric and charming Watamu Treehouse.
It’s a two-hour drive from Mombasa along open roads that parallel the coast to reach Kilifi Creek, a giant estuary of cerulean blue that spills out into the Indian Ocean. As you cross the majestic Kilifi Bridge, you’ll notice a few yachts cruising along the calm waters below and a handful of elegant villas scattered along the creek’s banks. After the chaos of the cities, the scene is delightfully calm. Were this spot of geographical beauty in Europe or America, it would be teeming with tourists, hotels, restaurant chains, and tacky bars by now. Not in Kenya and not in Kilifi. With its beautiful coastline, a smattering of creekside restaurants, and a few opportunities for sunset dhow-boat cruises, there’s little to do besides relax in this sleepy costal town.
Lake Naivasha, Kenya
As you approach Lake Naivasha from Nairobi, the one-lane, potholed road rises and you are suddenly treated to a truly awesome view of the Great Rift Valley stretching out to the horizon. Shimmering within that vista is Lake Naivasha, a popular weekend destination for Nairobians. The lake itself is beautiful in a prehistoric-looking way, with wispy, jagged trees jutting up from the water and hippos bathing in the midday sun. Along the boggy shoreline, before the water lilies and tropical grasses give way to the open water, it’s easy to imagine ancient creatures wriggling their way up onto land and eventually evolving into the first hominids. While in the area, explore Hell’s Gate National Park and its gigantic gorge, take a boat trip on the lake in search of hippos, and get your fill of the freshly made pizzas at Camp Carnelley’s.
Laikipia County, Kenya
What if you could spend the night in the middle of hundreds of acres of wild scrubland—where large herds of elephant graze, gazelles bound, and elusive leopards patrol—with nothing between you and the canopy of stars but a thin black mosquito net? The Star Beds at Loisaba Conservancy in northern Kenya offer a quirky and spectacular place to wonder at the universe all night long. The camp’s comfortable beds are rolled out onto a private open deck in the evening, allowing guests to watch the darkness set in and the glittering wonder of the galaxy awaken overhead.
KWS Central Workshop Gate, Off Magadi Rd, Nairobi, Kenya
The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust rescues orphaned baby elephants from the wild, nurturing and raising them through the grief of losing their families, and then eases them back into their natural habitat when they are old and strong enough. The animals are not forced to return to the wild—at around four years old, they are moved from the Nairobi nursery to a new home near Tsavo National Park to help them gain the independence to move on. The baby elephants can be visited every day at 11 a.m., where you’ll see them playing in the mud and guzzling gallons of milk. Guests who choose to adopt an orphan can return at 5 p.m. to watch the babies enjoy an evening snack of leaves before being put to bed.
Limuru Road
Right in the heart of Nairobi, the Karura Forest is a tranquil oasis with fragrant eucalyptus trees, open expanses of wild grassland, a waterfall, and hundreds of types of wildlife, including birds, monkeys, and even antelope. On weekends, Nairobians walk their dogs here, cycle the dirt tracks with their families (bike rentals are available), and walk the many trails through this 2,500-acre urban wilderness. Enter via the Limuru Road entrance for the waterfall and for access to the River Café, and via Peponi Road to enjoy a quieter side of the forest.
Gogo Falls Road, Nairobi, Kenya
Families would be hard-pressed to find a more memorable place to stay than Giraffe Manor. Located in the leafy suburb of Langata, about a 30-minute drive from central Nairobi, the 1932 family home of a former candy baron was modeled on a Scottish hunting lodge before becoming a sanctuary for endangered Rothschild’s giraffes, for which the boutique hotel gets its name. The ivy-clad brick mansion features 12 light-filled guest rooms, many with gauzy canopy beds and understated furnishings, but the real draw is the airy breakfast room, where you can feed the exceedingly friendly animals as they crane their necks through windows and doors in search of snacks. Afterward, complimentary chauffeured vehicles are on hand to take you to the area’s most popular attractions: at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the residents being fed are orphaned baby elephants.
Ngong Hills, Kenya
For a spectacular hike near Nairobi, head to the Ngong Hills, just a 40–minute drive away. These knuckle-shaped hills offer panoramic views of Nairobi and the surrounding mountain ranges, and you can choose to turn back at any point if you don’t feel like scaling every peak (the highest rises to 8,071 feet above sea level). The easiest option is to leave your car at the Ngong Town entrance and pick up a ranger to guide your walk. Be sure to bring a picnic—the satisfaction of reaching the final peak is best celebrated by sprawling out on a blanket, enjoying a sandwich, and soaking in the views extending out from all sides.
Kenya’s Mathioya, Tana, and Athi rivers offer some excellent white-water rafting opportunities. Rafting the Athi is considered one of the top 10 river trips in the world and includes steep rapids, giant waterfalls, and stunning views of wildlife along the route. Savage Wilderness, a company in the Sagana region, offers exhilarating and well-guided white-water excursions (as well as rock climbing, archery, and more) and is an easy day trip from Nairobi. At some points of the year, the rivers around Sagana can be too low to raft on, but a range of other activities, from swimming to attempting to kayak through a 50-foot waterfall, are available.
As soon as they see it along the Great Rift Valley, hiking enthusiasts want to climb Mount Longonot, a dormant volcano that last erupted sometime in the 1860s. The name Longonot is derived from a Masai word that means “steep ridges"—fitting because the journey to the top is nearly vertical, along deep crevices and crumbly rocks. Summiting usually takes about 1.5 hours; from the top, peer into the forest-filled crater and sit under a shaded gazebo to enjoy a picnic. If you have the energy, it’s also possible to hike the rim of the crater, but be warned: Skirting around takes roughly three hours, not including the journey back to the bottom.
Nairobi, Kenya
Sitting at the edge of Kenya’s capital city is Nairobi National Park. Kenya’s first national park is home to a huge range of wildlife, including buffalo, rhino, zebra, and lions. You can drive on your own around the park, or book a game drive with the Kenya Wildlife Service in advance. The best times to view the animals are at dawn or dusk; while away some of the time in between by heading to Ololo Lodge for lunch and a swim, or stay the night at Nairobi Tented Camp. Helping fund the park with tourism is more important now than ever: It is under pressure from developers, and there have been a number of incidents involving wildlife straying into nearby farmland, due to the encroachment of humans on the animals’ habitats in recent years.
6GGR6W43+QP, Nanyuki, Kenya
Just an hour’s drive from the busiest town in Laikipia County, El Karama Lodge feels like a world away. Set on 14,000 acres of private land, six cottages and two riverfront cabins are simply decorated with locally sourced stone and thatch and regionally made furnishings, giving emphasis to the lush natural surroundings. If total immersion is more your speed, the staff can arrange a personal fly camp before your arrival: after a hike to a remote location, you’re greeted by a suspended tent with a clear view to the night sky, complete with comfortable bedding, a drinks table, and a small barbecue. What you won’t find here? Cell service, though you’ll hardly miss it. A drive through El Karama land is almost certain to include sightings of elephants, giraffes, and zebras, but guests can also see creatures that are unique to northern Kenya, including gerenuk and Laikipia hartebeeste. Back at camp, there’s nothing to do as darkness sets in but lie back, stargaze, and listen to the calls of the wild.
Scaling Mount Kenya, the country’s highest and the continent’s second-highest mountain, is on the bucket list of many adventurers. The jagged summit peaks, sharp cliffs, and snowcapped crags can be seen on the northern road from Nairobi when the mountain is not shrouded in clouds. Hiking this monster usually takes from three to seven days, depending on fitness levels. Of the different possible routes up, the popular Chogoria route passes through lush green pastures and by icy blue lakes, crossing dusty martian landscapes along the way. The highest point hikers can reach without specialized climbing equipment is Lenana, more than 16,000 feet above sea level.
58581, Mara Safari Club, Aitong, Kenya
The hot-air balloon captains of the Masai Mara see themselves more as sailors than pilots. Despite the fact that they are flying, they guide the balloon through the air, adjusting the pulleys and controlling blasts of hot air like sailors harnessing the wind with canvas. The anticipation of takeoff is exhilarating: Guests arrive to an open field in the darkness and lie down on the grass to be hoisted up into the basket, with the roar of the flames overhead. The ride itself is tranquil and relaxing, drifting through the sky, admiring the balloon’s shadow on the golden ground as the sun rises. Rides can be booked in advance while staying at Angama Mara, one of Kenya’s most luxurious lodges.
Lake Turkana
It is worth the long, hot, and bumpy ride to Lake Turkana to see its jade blue waters and the surrounding lunar landscape. Members of the seminomadic Turkana tribe, decked out in jewelry and colorful fabrics, with goats, donkeys, and children in tow, pace the shore, collecting water and gathering wild fruits. Lake Turkana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the world’s largest permanent desert lake as well as its largest alkaline lake. The landscape is so hot, windy, and arid that it’s hard to imagine how anyone manages to survive here. If possible, come to the annual spring Lake Turkana festival, when tribes from across northern Kenya gather here to promote peace and celebrate one another’s cultures.
Nakuru East, Kiambu, Kenya
Film fans may remember the scene in Out of Africa when Denys Finch Hatton’s little yellow gypsy plane swooped above the pink flamingo–filled waters of Lake Nakuru to the sound of the John Barry soundtrack. The lake is indeed known for the thousands of flamingos that nest along its shores, attracted to the lake’s vast quantities of tasty algae. (Recent rising water levels have resulted in many of the birds moving their nests elsewhere, but naturalists believe they’ll return when the waters recede.) In 1961, the lake and its surrounding land were named Lake Nakuru National Park, now protecting the black and southern white rhinos, warthogs, lions, baboons, and other wildlife that live here. The lake is a roughly three-hour drive from Nairobi.
Lamu, Kenya
Lamu, one of the most magical destinations in Kenya, is famed for being the oldest and best-preserved example of a Swahili settlement in East Africa. The Old Town has been inhabited for over 700 years and is made particularly beautiful by the assortment of Swahili, Arabic, Persian, Indian, and European architecture. Since 1370, different cultures have been lured to Lamu, making it an important trading port along the East Africa coast. Nowadays it enchants visitors with its narrow cobbled alleyways, wandering donkeys, weather-beaten stone buildings, hidden courtyards, and the sight of rustic wooden dhows sailing in the distance. Visit the local mosques, wander the streets of quaint Shela village, sail over to the luxurious Majlis Resort for a swim and a cocktail, or while away the hours on an ornate roof terrace.
Kimana Sanctuary is special for a number of reasons. Not only was it the first community-owned conservancy in Kenya when it was established back in 1996, it’s also located in a crucial wildlife corridor that links Amboseli National Park with the with the Chyulu Hills and Tsavo protected areas, providing animals with a route though the narrowest part of the space between two settled areas. When elephants pass between the areas, they are able to use this corridor; sometimes they will just pass through the Sanctuary and other times they will stay for months.

Accommodation for guests is available either by camping in a tranquil spot by the river or staying at the dreamy Kimana House, a four-bedroom self-catering property that comes with an on-site manager to do the washing up. Two notable organizations are involved: Big Life Foundation manages the Sanctuary in partnership with the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
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